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Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich (Book Review)

By on August 17, 2010 – 5:00 pm  47 Comments

Louisa Jewell, MAPP '09, is president of Positive Matters and a consultant, facilitator and speaker who works with organizations around the world to develop positive leaders and nurture productive teams. Listen to Louisa's podcasts on positive matters, collected from a radio show she hosted. Full bio.

Louisa's PositivePsychologyNews.com articles are here.



Bright-sidedA friend of mine suggested that I read Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, because it is always good to be knowledgeable about the criticism in your field. So I read the book hoping to find an intelligent challenge that would spark intellectual debate with my colleagues in the field of positive psychology. Instead, I found Ehrenreich’s book to be a poorly-researched angry rant, attacking everything positive, with little scientific evidence and a great deal of cynicism.

Book Origins

Ehrenreich’s impetus for writing the book came from her experience as a breast cancer patient when everyone told her to just “think positive thoughts” and “smile your way through cancer.” Many told her a positive attitude would actually improve her chances of survival, which angered her given her knowledge of cell biology (she wrote her thesis on the topic 42 years ago). But what truly enraged Ehrenreich were those breast cancer survivors who wrote about positive benefits from having breast cancer. According to Ehrenreich, online chat rooms were filled with comments that were “upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive.” To suggest that women are actually happy to have breast cancer because they have experienced some positive benefits is taking this notion too far in my opinion. Women can’t control if they get breast cancer, but they can control how they deal with it. To quote a breast cancer survivor, “Make no mistake, cancer totally sucks. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are a few things about being touched by the disease that have markedly made my life better.” This is now commonly referred to as post-traumatic growth, when someone emerges from a difficult or traumatic experience stronger as a result. Apparently, when some women feel post-traumatic growth and tell others, Ehrenreich gets angry and writes a book.

BOOK REVIEW: Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America New York: Metropolitan Books.

Positive Thoughts and Health? No for Survival, Yes for Longevity and Morbidity

Ehrenreich, for the most part, disagrees with the notion that happiness is associated with good health and she offers one or two research studies to defend her position. She makes a weak attempt at poking holes in research studies that support the association between happiness and good health, not by tapping into expert opinion, but rather with an obvious misunderstanding that she herself admits of how to interpret psychological and statistical research findings.

Health

Health

Does thinking positively in fact improve your health? Edward Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener offer an excellent summary of the links between happiness and good health in their book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. They explore three types of health: Morbidity (whether or not an individual develops or contracts a specific illness), Survival (what happens to someone once they have already developed a serious illness), and Longevity (measured by your age at death). On morbidity, Diener and Biswas-Diener highlight several research studies that show that happiness can help “fend off infectious diseases, guard against lifestyle related illnesses, and protect against heart disease… (p.33)” For example, cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death in the United States and “depressed people are several times more likely than nondepressed folks to have heart attacks and hypertension (p.39).”

On survivability, the exact opposite is true. “Reviews of studies linking health and emotions show that survival rates for those people who have serious diseases might be an exception to the health benefits of happiness…survival is the one area where happiness is sometimes actually detrimental (p.34).” In this case, Ehrenreich does a respectable job at explaining how our immune systems work but her arguments lack credibility because she does not support her explanations with extensive research. She does, however, make an important point to all those battling things like cancer; do not expect your positive thoughts to save your life.

On longevity I can relate to Ehrenreich’s skepticism about the famous “nun study” that is quoted by so many positive psychologists, but there are other studies that show a link between happiness and longevity even controlling for pre-existing medical conditions. And yet George Vaillant, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development in his seminal book Aging Well, states: “I only wish to instill reasonable doubt that it is depression, per se, that is the cause of poor health in old age. Rather it is the heavy smoking and the poor self-care that accompanies depression that are major culprits.” Thus living longer may have more to do with healthy habits that are associated with happiness than just happiness itself. The nun study would tend to contradict this finding since nuns typically have similar lifestyles. Ehrenreich, however, argues a moot point. If it is happiness or the fact that happiness leads to healthier habits, which ultimately leads to improved longevity, then isn’t this good news to share? While the scientific evidence is not extensive at this point in time, the research findings that happiness does in fact contribute to improved morbidity and longevity is compelling enough to reliably act on.

Positive Thinking and the Economic Collapse of America?

The Economic Collapse

The Economic Collapse

As for Ehrenreich’s claim that positive thinking caused the economic collapse of America, I turned to former VP of a large Canadian bank, Raynor Burke, who alerted his higher-ups about the impending crash, only to be let go for his pessimistic outlook. Even though he was silenced, he states other reasons for the economic crash: “…outlook, thought process and groupthink really had much less to do with the recent crash than a deliberate shakedown by central bankers. Lowering interest rates and allowing anyone with a pulse to acquire unreasonable debt loads is what caused this crisis. The deliberate dismantling of the western world’s manufacturing sector (and exporting thereof to Asia) in the 90′s was another key element. Any other explanation is, in my mind, little more than window dressing, covering the deliberate actions of the banking establishment to seize control of assets which would otherwise belong to the people.” (For Raynor’s full response, see the first comment below.)

Book Takes on Positive Psychology and Misses Key Research Areas

The extent of Ehrenreich’s research in positive psychology appears to be Martin Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness, which, along with Seligman himself, is the focus of her attacks on positive psychology. In the chapter titled Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness, her attacks turn to blatant misrepresentation of Seligman’s work. Most notably, Seligman refers to more than 250 psychological scientific studies in his book, more than one study per page of text, and yet she states: “Like most lay books on positive thinking, it’s a jumble of anecdotes…references to philosophers and religious texts, and tests you can take to assess your progress toward a happier and healthier mind-set.” (p.153) When she interviewed Seligman for the book she took cheap shots at his research. For example, she remarked that several questions in Seligman’s Authentic Happiness Inventory were a bit arbitrary. When Seligman suggests that it was a failure on her part to understand test development and that questions were chosen for their predictive value, her response was “Well, no. First you come up with a test that seems to measure happiness as generally defined, and then you can look for things that happiness seems to correlate with….” Ehrenreich continues to offer a defense that is not scientifically based but rather based on opinion with no proposal on how a good test should be developed. She loses complete credibility when she tries to understand “beta weights” by “googling it,” implying she knows more about it than Seligman who has been studying psychology for decades. Finally, to imply Seligman is a layperson on the topic of positive psychology is like calling Bill Gates a layperson on the topic of computing. Seligman’s 40-plus years of research in psychology and his ability to mobilize thousands of researchers from very prominent universities around the world make him deservedly the leading international authority on the topic of positive psychology.

What I found most noteworthy was the fact that she stayed away from Barbara Fredrickson’s work on positive emotions. This is mainly due to the fact that Ehrenreich makes no distinction between positive thinking, positive emotion, and positive psychology, erroneously using the terms interchangeably. In fact, she spends so much time attacking everything from capitalism and optimism to the American way that she pays little attention to the importance of positive emotions in her entire book. As for implications for positive psychology practitioners, Ehrenreich’s book is not an attack on positive psychology per se but rather an attack on American optimism and the teachings of The Secret that espouse to “if you envision a million dollars, it will appear” kind of thinking. She just mistakenly throws positive psychology into this mix without exploring (or possibly not understanding) how the approaches differ.

Ehrenreich attacks the use of optimism in general because she thinks there is only one kind: blind optimism and fake cheeriness. On the point of “blind optimism,” I think positive psychologists would agree. Seligman advises that if you are analyzing risky situations, like whether to de-ice the wings of a plane before take-off, that in fact pessimism may be the way to go. It is about understanding when to use optimism and when not to use it. It is clear she does not understand Seligman’s definition of optimism, which is based on healthy ways of explaining bad events in our lives, primarily known as explanatory style. It is a well-known fact that depression is linked to unhealthy ways of thinking which is why cognitive behavioral therapy is such an effective tool in fighting depression. Instead, with her lack of appreciation for the middle ground on optimism, she throws the baby out with the bathwater.

Summary

What is sad to see is this book is written at a time when depression rates are fast reaching epidemic levels in America. There is no mention in the book of how interventions in positive psychology have been shown in several longitudinal studies to prevent depressive symptoms. I do not read every day about people who are blissfully happy and optimistic and how this happiness is ruining their lives. Instead, I do read about teenage suicide, adolescent depression, rising levels of anxiety and psychological illness as the number one reason for absence in the workplace. For this reason her book is irresponsible. It is easy to write a book criticizing everything and to have readers roll around in the mud with you, but I prefer to be collaborating with the brilliant scholars I have met in the positive psychology community who strive to offer solutions and can at least back up their arguments with credible scientific evidence. Even to the end, the book leaves you feeling completely hopeless with no clear direction of what we should be moving toward. As a reader, one is left wondering, what is the purpose of such a book?

 


 

Images:

Healthy girl courtesy of Pink Sherbet Photography
Wall St. courtesy of David Paul Ohmer

References:
Chaplin, T.M., Gillham, J.E., Reivich, K., Elkon, A.G.L., Samuels, B., Freres, D.R., Winder, B., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Depression prevention for early adolescent girls: A pilot study of all-girls verses co-ed groups. Journal of Early Adolescence, 26, 110-126.

Danner D, Snowdon D, Friesen W. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: findings from the Nun Study Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(5), 804-813.

Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.

Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Ipsos Reid, Public Release Date: Monday, November 19, 2007. Mental Health in the Workplace: Largest Study Ever Conducted of Canadian Workplace Mental Health and Depression.

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Vaillant, G. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.

Zonderman, A. B., Costa, P. T. & McCrae, R. R. (1989). Depression as a risk for cancer morbidity and mortality in a nationally representative sample. JAMA. 262, 1191-1195.


 


 

47 Comments »

  • The above article quotes Raynor Burke, former VP of a large Canadian bank. Raynor Burke’s full response on July 27, 2010 is below:

    Louisa Jewell: I am writing a review of Barbara Erhenreich’s book called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. She claims that the economic downfall was caused by delusional positive thinking that didn’t allow naysayers of what was actually going on to speak up. In your opinion what do you think was the source of the financial collapse?

    Raynor Burke: Very interesting, and as with many complex issues, the answer is neither black nor white. There is something to be said for the movement towards positive thinking. I think many people’s lives’ benefit from a focus on maintaining a good outlook without overly focusing on the negative. That said, the movement towards positive thinking at all costs, and controlling your thought process away from the negative, has in many cases allowed people to ignore the negative.

    I experienced this first-hand. In telling many people of the problems inherent in the stock market and housing market, I had many people summarize what I thought to be solid analytical research as being nothing more than a pessimistic outlook on life. Could it be that the positivity movement has trained us to discredit those who exhibit a more realistic viewpoint? To focus only on the positive can sometimes mean to ignore the less than palatable downside of a situation. And generally it was made known that they neither respected my opinion, didn’t want to hear it, and in some cases simply thought I was crazy. When the world is crazy, the sane do start to look strange. People were convinced they had all the answers, and didn’t mind telling me how I should buy houses also, and that I didn’t know that which of I spoke.

    I have generally believed people exhibited something I call “willful blindness.” As heavily exposed as people are to the real estate market, and the stories of fortunes being amassed by some, many people couldn’t afford to recognize the precarious nature of the markets. To do so would be to look into the abyss, and recognizing that it would be one’s own destination ….. Yet real estate is as complex as derivatives trading, which few would undertake with word of mouth knowledge.

    A related factor is the lack of education of the general public in the mechanics of real estate investing, and the nightmares of increasing rates on payments. Also the real estate industry took advantage of clients with many unscrupulous practices conducted by people who are as a group respected as much as snake oil salespeople. They preyed on basic human nature to acquire more home than needed based on ability to make mortgage payments in a very rare interest rate environment. And people bought into the garbage with lines like “it’s not an investment, it’s our home.” Yes, it is that, until you can make payments, then it starts to look line an anchor to be hung over the neck.

    That said, outlook, thought process and groupthink really had much less to do with the recent crash than a deliberate shakedown by central bankers. Lowering interest rates and allowing anyone with a pulse to acquire unreasonable debt loads is what caused this crisis. The deliberate dismantling of the western world’s manufacturing sector (and exporting thereof to Asia) in the 90’s was another key element. Any other explanation is, in my mind, little more than window dressing, covering the deliberate actions of the banking establishment to seize control of assets, which would otherwise belong to the people.

  • oz says:

    Louisa, I have also read “bright sided”. I found it a really interesting read with lots of food for thought.

    The challenge for positive psychology is the often contradictory research. For example optimists are more prone to weight gain (http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=579) and executives with higher levels of negative emotions take less financial risks (http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=773).

    I think its useful to be curious about research from both sides of the fence.

    After all the world would be really dull if we had all of the answers.

  • Hello and thank you for your comment. Yes, here I would have to agree with you. I do think it is useful to be curious about research from both sides of the fence. I think I would have found the book more thought provoking if she had presented the research as you eloquently did as opposed to her use of cynicism. Your point is a good one, as positive psychology practitioners we need to be aware of when optimism is useful and when it is not. Realistic optimism is the key.
    Louisa

  • Steve Safigan says:

    Hey Louisa, based on your review it sounds like you know more about the topic of Ms. Ehrenreich’s book than the author herself. Trying to school Marty Seligman on test development is like trying to school Stephen Hawking on calculus. I suspect your description of this small part of the book is illustrative of the entire book. Thanks for saving me the time and expense of buying and reading it myself.

  • Hi Steve,
    Yes, I do believe she lost credibility with her personal attacks on Seligman.
    Louisa

  • Adrienne Keane says:

    Louisa….Very thorough and informed review. The author addresses happiness and survivability and says that “research studies linking health and emotions show that survival rates for those people who have serious diseases might be an exception to the health benefits of happiness…survival is the one area where happiness is sometimes actually detrimental (p.34).” Detrimental in exactly what way? Although a person may not survive as long, what about the quality of the time they do survive? A very close friend of mine died of ovarian cancer a few years ago. Her post-diagnosis time was spent living a life of gratitude and love, much more so than before she got sick. Perhaps this positive emotion didn’t help her live longer, but she was happier and closer with friends and family during that time than any other time in her life.

  • Hi Adrienne,
    Thank you. I am very sorry to hear about the passing of your dear friend. I just want to clarify that the quote you mention (p.34) is in fact from Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by Diener and Biswas-Diener. They suggest a number of possible reasons why happiness might be detrimental for survival. First, highly positive people may not report signs of illness and not seak out the treatment required. More optimistic people may take symptoms too lightly or be slow to seak treatment. They may also opt to live out their days without intrusive treatments and thus not live as long. I think here Barbara makes a valid point. Because there is so much talk in the media that thinking positive thoughts can cure cancer, there are some who forego medical treatment thinking they can cure themselves. Now if this is their belief, then I do not judge how people want to go about healing or surviving a serious illness. It’s just that Ehrenreich, and two prominent positive psychologists; Diener and Biswas-Diener, are suggesting that there is a lack of scientific evidence to show that happiness helps you survive a serious illness like cancer.

    Now that being said, I could not agree with your comments more. I have a dear friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer. A colleague who had gone through breast cancer said “Expect to lose a year of your life.” Since she was not sure if she would even survive the year, she chose instead to live as happily as she could with gratitude, love and spending time with her closest friends. Total strangers reached out to her with kindness and generosity. She absolutely experienced a year filled with much sadness but also with tremendous joy. This choice dramatically improved her quality of life. I am happy to say she is now cured of cancer and her life has been enriched. It is a relief to know your close friend also chose to live her final months with love and gratitude. Ehrenreich wanted to live with anger when she was diagnosed and others suggested a new perspective to improve her own quality of life – but this only angered her more. Hence the book.
    Louisa

  • Cris Popp says:

    Louisa,

    I absolutely loved your review. I am a speaker and educator on positive psychology and I also run laughter club, so am often speaking on this topic and have many opportunities to see people’s responses. What I sometimes am quite gobsmacked by is the almost hostile response of people to positive psychology. I remember on one ocassion laughing – for a photo shoot – during pedestrian peak hour. I was facing the camera but passers-by became really angry, and many yelled abusive comments. It’s not a dissimilar response from audience members on occasion.

    My explanation for this is that the message “from every adversity take a lesson” becomes confused with “everything happens for a reason”. The extension of the later message is that it is the “victim’s” fault. I totally disagree with the 2nd philosophy – sometimes bad things just happen. However I know that my response to life’s vicissitudes will make a difference (in either direction ie worse of better). How I think and respond will determine how I recover. What we need to do is understand that, take out the judgment, and say – is this useful? If it is then use it.

    Ehrenriech’s response serves – at best – as a cautionary tale. At worst … well let the reader draw their own conclussions. I just don’t find it particularly useful. Wouldn’t it be better to have a rational, meassured conversation? Take what works and leave the rest? Your review helps that. Thanks for your clear and thoughtful and non-judmental review.

  • Dan Bowling says:

    Louisa

    Thanks for taking on this shallow and intellectually dishonest book. Here are some thoughts I scribbled down when I first read it.

    Positive Psychology: Opiate of the Masses?
            Welcome to the vast right wing conspiricacy, optimists. Apparently, America is being undermined not by ponzi-scheming Wall Streeters or terrorists lurking in the shadows, but by too much positive thinking! Yes, from leading cults in worship services at mega-churches to motivating salesmen at corporate rallies to make us buy things we don’t need, the cheerfulness crowd is part of a deeper and darker conspiracy to destroy the working person. You might be as surprised to discover this as I am, but according to Barbara Ehrenreich our problems could be solved with just a little more gloom.  Of course, this is not a serious book. Any book with a bright yellow cover and the phrase “undermining America” in its title is bound to be a polemic,  more properly considered with offerings from Glenn Beck and Bill Maher than a thoughtful intellectual exercise. And Barbara Ehrenreich is an admitted polemicist.While she holds a PhD in cell biology she has found her books attacking the moneyed classes (she identifies herself on her website as a socialist, and states she is “committed to a radical agenda of change”) as far more palatable to the book-buying public than discourses on cell reproduction. Unfortunately, however, (and quite predictibly), it is being treated as a serious book by the mainstream media. However, it isn’t; it is a disjointed romp through a lot of easy targets, mega-church preachers of a religion of wealth and a sad assortment of fake healers and hoaksters peddling positivity for a profit. Sort of a “Borat for the book club” crowd.   Even the generally friendly NYTimes review of Janet Maslin scolded her for laziness and shooting fish in a barrel in her reporting and its targets.
                   First, somehow, she would like us to believe that the economic meltdown was because of the positivity movement’s alliance with investment bankers. As though Ivy League Wall Streeters are a bunch of flower sniffing, New Ageists with gurus on speed dial. This is absolutley ludicrous, as anyone who has ever met a trader knows – hubris, narcissism, excessive risk tolerance, greed, yes – these traits abound on Wall Street – but an excess of positive thinking? I don’t think so. Where her book migrates from harmless silliness to raw, intellectual dishonesty is in its review of the science of positive psychology, as you ably point out.
            Why is positivity such an easy target? You might as well ask why evil can so easily trump good. And why are so many in the media and the academy eager to echo her? Call it the cool kid syndrome. Who got all the girls/boys in high school, the smiling student council President or the dark, brooding kid smoking cigarettes in the parking lot. Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse. The patron saint of many a dissolute journalist, Lord Byron, was celebrated in large part for his ennui and melancholy. Face it, pessimism and gloom is cooler, at least in certain intellectual and artistic circles.
    So yes, Barbara will find an audience. But I have to ask her: What’s your point? Do you really think there is too much optimism in the world?
     

  • Hello Cris and thank you for your kind comments. I guess there are some people who just prefer to be in anger. I agree, I think I would have enjoyed the book better had it been a rational conversation. I think sometimes this kind of sensationalism sells books. Perhaps it takes an extreme cynical point of view to bring people to the middle. I like your idea about ‘take what works and leave the rest.’ That is why Seligman views positive psychology as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Let people make their own choices.
    Louisa

  • Hello Dan, I absolutely love your point of view on the book! You have perfectly captured how I felt about the book. Thank you.
    Louisa

  • oz says:

    Louisa, despite your concerns about the book, what did you learn about lay perceptions of PP.

    These perceptions are important and offer endless opportunities to explore.

    Again to re-iterate the problem with psychology (including positive psychology) is the often conflicting research. This often arises from lack of resolution in measurement systems.

    For every piece of research cited in PP, it is easy to find another piece of research that questions it. For example gratitude seems to be more effective for women (see http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=472). The same goes for forgiveness (http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=817)

    You might be interested in my blog where I capture PP research from both perspectives.

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Louisa, I am wondering what it is the objective of your book review? When I read critiques of PP, I look at the content of their criticisms to determine if there is anything to be learned. Regardless of whether the author is upbeat, dour, pessimistic, or a curmudgeon, the question is whether there are merit to the claims being made. When “The Bell Curve” was published, nobody wrote reviews focusing on the authors tone, they focused on the merit of their interpretation of the data. Very carefully, reviewers dissected the arguments. I think its important to show that people in PP can handle criticism. Claiming that Ehrenreich loses credibility because she searched for more information about beta weights is not the way to handle criticisms of PP. Neither is taking sides in a conversation with Seligman that none of us have access to.

    As Wayne points out, the data on the health benefits of optimism is complicated. Did Ehrenreich overinterpret the data? absolutely. Have PP authors done the seem? absolutely. Explaining the nuances between these two camps is a better approach than going after Ehrenreich’s emotional tone. If you provided a primer on the criticisms that Ehrenreich missed, you would be showing that you are willing to work with and learn from challenges to the discipline.

    The last thing I want is PP to enter into groupthink. Science evolves through criticism and debate, not consensus.

  • Hello Oz,
    Thank you, again for your thoughtful contribution to this discussion. You mention that it is a problem with psychological research that we have conflicting research results but this problem exists in all scientific study. One day I read a study that milk is good for you, the next day I read a study that milk is not good for you. A respectable set of scientists present research data that supports the fact that global warming is ruining our earth and another equally respectable set of scientists present research data that shows global warming does not exist. As lay people on the topic it becomes more challenging to separate fact from fiction.

    I think it’s wonderful that you present the research that supports the use of optimism and you also show when optimism does not work, that way people can make an informed decision. I think people, as well as PP practitioners, also need to be more vigilant when assessing each and every study to understand its limitations and its application to oneself. As I mention above, positive psychology is descriptive rather than prescriptive. For example, there are studies that show that married people, on average, report higher levels of well-being than people who are not married. But if you take a look at individuals who participated in that study, you will find that there are some people who are clearly worse off by marriage. Thus, can we prescribe marriage just because the average says we should? Of course not. Marriage is not right for everyone. It is good to know the research and then after that, make your own decisions. This is why I think your blog is very different than the approach she takes in her book.

    Quoting Dan Bowling above, “Where her book migrates from harmless silliness to raw, intellectual dishonesty is in its review of the science of positive psychology, as you ably point out.” She in fact, misrepresents the facts which, in my opinion, misinforms the average lay person on the topic. I don’t find misinformation useful, even if it enlightens me to another opinion. I also think that we, as practitioners, can offer useful information to those lay people who are trying to formulate an informed opinion.
    Louisa

  • Hello Todd,
    Thank you for your comments and your excellent feedback on the review. With regards to the the health benefits, I actually do agree with Ehrenreich’s position on some of the research on PP and offer the research to support that. I do agree that PP authors can overstate the benefits of happiness on health and I think she makes a valid point on this topic. On this, we agree.

    Touche on my taking sides in a conversation with Seligman. You’re right, I was not privy to this conversation. You have to admit, however, she goes into great detail about her conversation with Seligman with such cynicism that she does open this up to reader interpretation. I think if she had turned to expert opinion rather than offering her own uninformed opinion when challenging Seligman’s knowledge of test development she would have been more credible. I’m merely trying to point out that her cynicism does not serve her well in the credibility department. That is just my point of view and probably not the best way to present healthy debate. Point well taken.

    You’re absolutely right that science evolves through criticism and debate, not concensus. But do you really think her book is a criticism of positive psychology? I ask this question with all honesty. Since Ehrenreich makes no distinction between positive emotions, positive thinking, optimism, ‘The Secret’ and positive psychology I really don’t think she was criticizing PP per se. So it is difficult to defend or support her content because her criticisms are like a discussion first on apples, then oranges, then bananas with a final world that all fruit is bad. It becomes such a cluster of ideas that in the end, my point was that as positive psychology practitioners I wasn’t sure if this was a straight attack on PP or other things. I could have been clearer on this point in my review.

    Further to Wayne’s point above, if this is how lay people think of positive psychology, then perhaps we, as part of the PP community need to do a better job of accurately conveying the limitations of the research findings in PP. While I believe the book is a reflection of Ehrenreich’s perceptions and not the perceptions of the average lay person, perhaps it is this extreme point of view that allows us to fall somewhere in the middle.

    Finally on your point regarding my mention of her angry tone, you ask, “What is the objective of your book review?” As a book reviewer, one of my objectives is to share my experience of the book. Chapter after chapter the book was so overwhelmingly angry that it would be impossible NOT to comment on the angry tone. I think if it was a straight criticism of PP that I was responding to, I agree, there is no need to mention the tone. As a book reviewer, I felt I would have been remiss had I not mentioned it. I commend you for getting through the book and being able to separate out the anger.

    Thank you for an interesting debate. I think your point is well taken…We should be open to all criticism regardless of the source and our best defense is a rational, scientific response.
    Louisa

  • Sherrill Franklin says:

    From Barbara Erhenreich’s perspective as a cancer patient, it is possible that constant reminders to “smile” and “be happy” not only seem, but are, cruelly dismissive to someone who is understandably frightened and concerned about a serious health issue.

    The swarm of unhelpful (erroneous) ideas widely adopted by our culture including “a bad attitude causes cancer” or not surviving cancer is caused by “not trying hard enough” serve no one. My mother’s vain attempts at having her symptoms of ovarian cancer taken seriously were dismissed with her gynecologist’s comment, “You’re fine. You’re just getting old and getting fat.” My mother, a committed optimist, took her doctor’s advice and went on her way. When my mother was finally diagnosed at a late stage, she was overdosed with chemo and died shortly thereafter, bleeding from every orifice. An acquaintance weighed in with: “So she just gave up, huh?” As a result, I do find Barbara Ehrenreich’s protestations heartening.

    As Americans, we are bombarded with messages that we are never thin enough or rich enough, and now we’re never quite happy enough to meet some vague, unquantifiable standard. Sometimes we confuse taking things seriously with being unhappy. It’s not the same thing. And that’s something worth discussing.

  • oz says:

    Louisa, I have just re-read Barbara’s book. Can I say that there is research to support what she’s saying. As is there research to dispute it.

    In general, I try and read the original research, as opposed to relying on the press releases. For some reason PP, press releases on PP research tend to be prone to spin. Typically you will find that the effect sizes are often very small, or that an important finding of the research is not mentioned.

    My favourite is a piece of research that suggested that pleasure, engagement and meaning were important across two cultures. Yet a closer look at the research showed that meaning was only important in American culture – engagement was more important in the other. This makes sense given the religious nature of American and the other culture was highly secular.

    Or another piece of research that highlighted that working on strengths improved well-being. What it failed to say was that the research found that working on weaknesses (the control) also improved well-being. More importantly there was no difference between working on strengths and working on weaknesses.

    And then there is the Penn resilience research – have a closer look and you will find some interesting observations that suggest that their might be some contraindications for applying the model

    I suspect that PP, like Barbara, is also guilty of selective quoting of research – this might be a natural extension of the PP mindset – selectively filtering through a positive lens (eg appreciative inquiry)

    This mindset is dangerous, and serves no useful purpose for PP.

  • Good review–and good comments. I agree with Todd. There’s no need to jump into the mud wrestling foray about people’s attitudes and motivation.

    Based on your review I bought the book! I believe in going to the original sources. I think we (what’ya mean “We,” Paleface?) tend to get easily confused with the purveyors of The Secret. It’s partly our fault. The way to react to this confusion is not to attack authors and call them names, but to critically dissect the logic and data and arguments. I am thankful there are Erhenreichs around to stop us from overgeneralizing and telling cancer victims to smile.

    Thanks again for your review. Don’t worry about its negative impact. Smile ;-)

  • Dan Bowling says:

    Louisa was right to focus on the tone of the book. Ehrenreich is a pamphleteer, not a serious thinker. For Louisa not to reference her intellectual mendacity and cheap shot shallowness would have made her review, well, nothing. Although I do like a point Todd is getting at, that positive psychology needs to develop a thicker skin, and a little more dissent within its ranks. Although I don’t think this review is guilty of that at all.

  • oz says:

    Dan – spot on. Time for PP to get over the groupthink.

  • Hello Sherrill,
    I want to first say how sorry I am to hear about what your mother went through. I don’t think fake cheeriness and telling cancer victims to ‘just smile’ is at all appropriate and I’m sorry your mother was affected by this. I have several friends who have had breast cancer…Many of them survived, but one of my friends did not. One day as one of my friends cried on the phone over another bad test result, she soon apologized for not being more upbeat and optimistic. I quickly retorted with “It’s okay to be sad!” When you’ve been given a horrible diagnosis, it’s appropriate to be sad or angry or overwhelmed. I agree with you, there is a lot of pressure to just ‘suck it up’ and be happy all the time. While I tend to be more upbeat with my life, there are times when getting angry about situations serves me better than just sucking it up.

    I have a friend, who, after a brain tumour was removed from her brain, was not feeling well. She complained to the nurse who told her that she just had brain surgery and feeling bad was normal. She did nothing to help my friend. Luckily my friend did not ignore how she felt. She went to her own doctor who did tests right away. She received a phone call several hours later from her doctor who informed her he was sending an ambulance to her house. Her test indicated that she was going to die in a matter of hours if she did not get the medication she needed to correct the situation. As Diener and Biswas-Diener indicate in their book, Happiness, being overly optimistic can possibly lead to overlooking signs that something is wrong with our health.

    I agree, sometimes we do confuse taking things seriously with being unhappy. Great insight. Thank you.
    Louisa

  • Hello Sivasailam,
    I’m definitely not worried about Ehrenreich’s negative impact because, as Dan so perfectly articulates, this is not a serious criticism of positive psychology. Just for the record, while Ehrenreich takes cheap shots by calling Seligman, life coaches, evangelists and funders by several bad names, I never once call Ehrenreich a bad name in my review. I agree, calling people names is cheap, which is probably why I didn’t find her book that intellectually stimulating. I’ll let you form your own opinion once you’ve read the book. Perhaps Ehrenreich would have presented her facts with greater clarity had she taken your advice when she wrote the book.

    If the book serves a purpose by stopping the overgeneralizing and telling cancer victims to smile, then I agree, it has served some purpose. I do think, and I point this out in my review, that informing people that thinking positive does not improve your chances of surviving cancer is an important piece of information to convey to people. Again, if it serves this purpose, this is a good thing.

    Thank you Sivasailam, enjoy reading the book!
    Louisa

  • Hello Dan,
    Thank you for your comments. I agree, this is not a serious look at positive psychology. I think for those who have only read the review and not the book, their perspectives may differ.
    All the best.
    Louisa

  • In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I have not read the book although have read a variety of reviews (both positive and negative) since it was published. I did listen to Ehrenreich’s Commonwealth Club lecture (available on itunes) after the book was launched which seemed to be less critical of positive psychology (maybe she has shifted her thinking slightly or become more educated on the distinction between positive psychology and positive thinking.) The concerns that she addressed in that speech were consistent with concerns that I have heard addressed by Seligman and others in the PP community: that the media and the public are running with this faster than the research warrants and that positive thinking for the sake of positive thinking (without any science to support it) can be harmful.

    In that sense, (and again, I have not read the book so I am speaking from ignorance) any review of her work could also include areas of agreement. Louisa, I think you did a good job of addressing that in some of your comments and I appreciate the thought you take in responding to this forum. The value of these articles and PPND is in the discussions that the articles elicit. The discussion above is important and one we should continue to test ourselves on.

  • Todd’s comment made me want to toss in the observation that criticism and debate are no guarantees that science will evolve. For debate to move things forward, people need to be willing to be changed by what they hear. On a scale from deficit to excess conflict, groupthink is the deficit and debate without a spirit of inquiry is excess. So here’s to the golden mean, and may all sides be willing to be changed by other opinions.

    Thank you to all who are contributing to this debate.

    Kathryn

  • Thank you Jeremy,
    As I mention in my first sentence of the review, I read the book because I feel it is important to understand the criticism of positive psychology and also to be open to different points of view. You’re right, our discussion has offered that intellectual stimulation. I think I have always been careful to read the whole research paper before making comments because so many people misinterpret research results and I often find that the media does that quite a bit. That is what I have always enjoyed about PPND – authors are concerned about presenting the research properly. As a graduate of the MAPP program, we were always open to debate. Again, my reason for reading the book in the first place.
    Thanks again Jeremy, I hope you and your new family are doing well!
    Louisa

  • Here here Kathryn!
    Louisa

  • Mark says:

    Hello Louisa,

    Thank you for your review.

    I am glad I read the book even if I had to summon every ounce of patience to separate out the real content from the noise. What I found most troubling about the book was the chapter on PP where Ehrenreich takes on Martin Seligman and his cohorts. Here, she doesn’t just throw away one baby with the bathwater, as you mention, she throws away all the babies. I have to agree with you Louisa, by the time I reached this chapter in the book, I was so tired of her message of “anything positive is bad” that she did lose me when she chose to paint an entire academic community of bright people with the same brush, based on her limited reading of Seligman’s book.

    Some literature in positive psychology may leave us skeptical, but you cannot deny that the movement has provided valuable insights. Decades ago there was very little ‘positive’ being studied in psychology so I am not against a positive perspective to offer this balance in psychology.

    Positive psychology is not equivalent to “The Secret” and I have never seen research in positive psychology suggest that the people who get cancer invited it by their own negative thinking. I am glad to hear from Jeremy that she is starting to distinguish between positive thinking and positive psychology because this does convolute her message. There are lots of people in the helping profession who do not back their work with scientific rigor, but I do believe that many scholars in positive psychology have done the research to respectfully earn their place at the table.

    Thank you for having the courage to take this topic on. You have provided a forum for a meaningful debate.

  • Jeff says:

    Caveat emptor: Ehrenreich’s books cause cancer.

  • Elaine O'Brien says:

    Louisa,

    Thanks for the intriguing article and for a lively discussion. Here’s a clip from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a 7 minute interview with Barbara about Bright Sided.http:
    //www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-october-14-2009/barbara-ehrenreich
    She talks with disdain about how people told her to think positively, when she was suffering with breast cancer. She is clearly in pain. From what she says the medical community and people in general wanted her to be more “smiley face” positive, when she needed to grieve. She talks about a lack of empathy.

    The difficulty with her discourse it that she is lumping self-help non-scientific ideas together with evidence-based research and applications! These are the foundation of Positive Psychology. Fredrickson and scholars has proven the theory of Positive Emotions is true. The importance of Positive Emotions, Engagement, Meaning, and Positive Relationships need to be advanced.
    Moral/Character Strengths development underpin this emerging, beneficial and necessary field of study. Realistically optimistically, Applied Positive Psychology is science that aims to bolster people and society.

    Regarding empathy, two weeks ago at Tsinghua University, Beijing, Dacher Keltner presented compelling information on the how, importance, and far-reaching effects of empathy and compassion in healing.

    Wishing you all well,
    Elaine

  • Mark2 says:

    On a more prosaic note surely the relative merits of positive & negative thinking depend in part on the person and the situation they’re in? Each mode of thought comes with it’s own set of pros & cons.

    In a situation rich with opportunity or reward, where we’re trying to make, create, generate or explore then a positive, optimistic attitude is often more helpful.

    Conversely, in a risky situation where the costs or consequences of failure are high it may be better to focus on the downside & err on the side of caution.

    Neither negative nor positive thinking are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in an absolute sense – in many circumstances an overly optimistic attitude may be just as damaging as an overly pessimistic one.

    True PP embraces this dynamic & seeks to better understand the interplay. As a brand however, the name may suggest to some it’s more ideology than science.

  • Hi Elaine,
    Thank you for your comments and for a link to the Daily Show. In this clip I think she has some reasonable things to say which is to be realistic in your life. I agree, if she had just stuck with focusing on ‘The Secret’ I think her book would have been more intresting.
    Louisa

  • Hello Mark2,
    Yes, you make a very good point and I couldn’t agree with you more. I also agree that the ‘positive’ in positive psychology does sometimes send the wrong message. I have friends who know me well who still call my degree a master in positive thinking! I believe Marty is moving towards ‘the psychology of well-being’which may be a better descriptor of the science.
    Louisa

  • oz says:

    Louisa – Mark 2 crystallized some thinking for me around PP.

    The challenge for PP is metacognition.

    PP talks about all the things that we should be doing – good relationships, positivity, working on our strengths, have meaning in our lives. But what happens to those who don’t have these in their lives. The risk is that that they start to worry that they don’t have these. In the stress literature worrying about worry (metacognition)is worse than the actual worry.

    So perhaps PP might be making people feel worse – I guess this is Barbara’s message.

    I have seen this first hand when I first started my workshops. The woman whose partner was passive destructive became concerned that her marriage was on the rocks, another client who was naturally pessimistic etc.

    I guess that’s why I always teach mindfulness (the eastern version) first – it is a safe foundation from which to explore PP.

    So I guess that Iam going to suggest that the next time a PP starts talking about PP, they may want to consider how their message is going to be perceived.

    So to conclude I’m going to have to say that mindfulness rocks.

  • I love Mark2′s comment. The voice of reason! It’s all about balance.

  • Jim Coyne says:

    This is truly a exceedingly snide and one-sided review that cherrypicks only the data that fit and ignores what does not. This kind of scholarship is an embarrassment to claims of positive psychology being empirically based and not the commercial domain of coaching. For a more thorough and scholarly consideration of positive psychology and health see the set of papers

    Aspinwall, L. G. and R. G. Tedeschi “Of Babies and Bathwater: A Reply to Coyne and Tennen’s Views on Positive Psychology and Health.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 39(1): 27-34.

    Aspinwall, L. G. and R. G. Tedeschi “The Value of Positive Psychology for Health Psychology: Progress and Pitfalls in Examining the Relation of Positive Phenomena to Health.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 39(1): 4-15.

    Coyne, J. C. and H. Tennen “Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: Bad Science, Exaggerated Claims, and Unproven Medicine.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 39(1): 16-26.

    Coyne, J. C., H. Tennen, et al. “Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: A Story Line Resistant to Evidence.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 39(1): 35-42.

    Miller, S. M., A. C. Sherman, et al. “Introduction to Special Series: The Great Debate-Evaluating the Health Implications of Positive Psychology.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 39(1): 1-3.

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Thanks Jim. Having read the papers mentioned, I would strongly recommend that people interested in physical health do the same. I used this as a lab reading alongside some of the chapters in the Handbook of PP.

    Sometimes the mean between two sides is not the answer. Sometimes what we learn in courses is distorted. We have to be open and receptive to the complexity of these topics in an integrated manner rather than a superficial manner (merely stating that context is important or negative emotions are important).

    Exciting theories and research are being published every month. No hyperbole is necessary.

    cheers,
    Todd

  • Thank you Jim. You have cited more studies in your brief comment than Ehrenreich does in her entire book. I am looking forward to reading these papers and finding the intelligent debate that was so lacking in her book.
    Louisa

  • Mark says:

    Jim,

    did you take the time to read the book?

    What exactly did this review cherry pick? Did you really find a well presented argument about PP in the book?

    I found that the booked lumped together PP, the Secret and anything positive and over generalized to say all of these basically tell you to smile and think good thoughts … and you should win the lottery.

    Without reading the book it is unfair to critique the review.

  • oz says:

    Louisa – I think Jim raises some interesting perspectives about PP but I think it’s a little unfair to direct the criticism at you.

    PP does tend to cherry pick information. And if you highlight research that contradicts PP, then you tend to be labeled cynical.

    Most PP’ers have a limited understanding of the research, primarily focused on the limited paradigms promoted in books like authentic happiness. Can you imagine the sort of person who would discount the importance of relationships?

    I always wonder whether this mindset is driven by positivity – ie ignore the information that isn’t positive about positive psychology.

  • Jim Coyne says:

    Mark, I read the book and provided some scientific consultation to Barbara. And if you read the book, you would see that I am quoted there. Compare Lisa’s review to the set of papers I mention above, some of which are written by people who consider themselves positive psychologists.

  • oz says:

    Louisa – another study you might be interested in.

    Personality has no effect on cancer risk or cancer survival, concludes a new study based on the largest and most relevant dataset to date. Other recent studies have also found no link or have been inconclusive.

    http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/727580?src=stfb

  • Jim,
    I wanted to read the papers you suggested in full before responding to your comment. Thank you for providing the references and for disclosing your position as a contributor to Ehrenreich’s book. To suggest that I cherry pick the evidence and Ehrenreich does not is a naïve notion. Of course she cherry picks and I am not against this. She is trying to formulate a persuasive argument and has found some convincing evidence to support her point of view. It is a natural thing for authors to do. None of the scientific papers you reference in your comment is referenced in the book, instead she references another paper written by you, cherry picking right over Aspinwall’s arguments. All of the papers you reference offer us important insight into the fact that there is no scientific evidence that ‘positive thinking’ improves chances of survival of cancer. You call my review one-sided, and perhaps you skipped this whole section of my review, but I actually agree with Ehrenreich (and you) on this point. I quote “On survivability, the exact opposite is true. “Reviews of studies linking health and emotions show that survival rates for those people who have serious diseases might be an exception to the health benefits of happiness…survival is the one area where happiness is sometimes actually detrimental.” I also offer further support for Ehrenreich’s skepticism regarding the famous ‘nun study’ by quoting Vaillant’s doubts that it is depression that leads to reduced longevity. After re-reading my review, I am somewhat one-sided in my commentary so I accept your comments there as fair criticism. Had her book included the information you provided, I think it would have strengthened Ehrenreich’s point of view as she did not have me convinced. I think if people are serious about wanting to know more about the links between positive psychology and physical health that they read the papers you listed rather than Ehrenreich’s book.

    One important point I want to reiterate is that I disagree with a very fundamental flaw in Ehrenreich’s criticism of positive psychology. I feel she does an excellent job of critiquing rampant positive thinking but she does not offer a serious critique of positive psychology. On the widespread media accounts that positive thinking can cure cancer, even Aspinwall agrees that “These claims are widespread, influential, and often reprehensible, but they are not positive psychology. (Aspinwall & Tedeschi, “Of Babies and Bathwater…”)” Positive psychology is about the scientific study of psychological well-being so let me give you an example to illustrate my point. Ehrenreich references a study that shows that preteenagers who were realistic about their standing among their peers were less likely to become depressed than those who held positive illusions about their popularity. She uses this study to show research that contradicts the findings in positive psychology. This study contradicts the promotion of delusion for preteenagers, but in my opinion, this study actually makes an important contribution to positive psychology because it helps us understand how to improve well-being. While studying MAPP at UPENN, we study the research of Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice and the harmful effects of falsely pumping up our children’s self esteem. Bottom line, positive psychology as a science does not promote delusional thinking as Ehrenreich would have us all believe.

    I actually stand that my review is quite accurate in capturing Ehrenreich’s cheap shots at Seligman personally and positive psychology. I think if she had stuck to ‘The Secret’ my review would have been entirely different. Perhaps my review comes across as snide because calling the founder of positive psychology names like “the Wizard of Oz’ and likening life coaches to “purveyors of snake oil” in an attempt to discredit the entire positive psychology movement is not the answer. Sure there have been exaggerations and contradictions in the field of positive psychology but this is not a reason to stop studying the factors that promote well-being, especially at this time when depression rates in America are alarmingly high. In his new book, “Wrong” (Little, Brown) David Freedman spent 3 years examining why scientists’ claims in all fields of science turn out to be exaggerated, misleading or wrong. In fact, there are hundreds of studies in cancer research that have contradictory findings but certainly no one is going to suggest that we use this as a reason to stop searching for a cure for cancer. It is inappropriate to pull the plug on the study of positive psychology for this reason. As new research continues to flow in I am confident we will get more scientific clarity on what promotes physical and psychological health and what does not.

    Thank you for an interesting discussion.
    All the best,
    Louisa

  • Marisol says:

    Ehrenreich systematically deconstructs—and then demolishes—what little science there is behind the positive-psychology movement and the allegedly salubrious effects of positive thinking. Evidence is thin. Statistical significance levels are narrow. What few robust findings there are often prove to be either nonreplicable or contradicted by later research. And correlations (between, say, happiness and health) are not causations. Seligman and his colleagues drank the positive-thinking Kool-Aid, Ehrenreich shows this in her book Bright-Sided.

    By the way, she quoted more than five studies.

    Best Regards,

    Marisol

  • Marisol,
    Thank you for that quote from Michael Shermer, originally published in Skeptic magazine. Michael Shermer was incorrect when he indicated that evidence is thin. Seligman actually gave Ehrenreich a multitude of studies which she chose to cherry pick only one or two studies that aligned with her point of view. As Seligman states in his new book, Flourish, one meta-analysis titled “Optimism and Physical Health” in which over 83 studies were analyzed, results showed that optimism is a significant predictor of positive physical health outcomes.

    By the way, the five studies I referred to were the studies quoted by Coyne above to prove his point, whithout realizing that Ehrenreich did not even refer to these studies in her book. She, once again, cherry picks over these articles. Probably because these studies were actually intellectually coherent and did not fully support her opinions.
    Louisa

  • I have found this interesting to read through.I met an acquaintance one morning in the supermarket,almost weeping because her cancer has returned and as soon as she got the news her nurse and her best friend were v=urging her to be positive.I hope she will be allowed to feel the grief first and perhaps the positive thoughts might follow.When my dad died when i was 8 I was enjoyed t5o smile and laugh as he was now in Heaven and not suffering.Consequently I and others in my family have.I believe,found it hard to recover from the unacknowledged and uncomforted grief.
    On the other hand i don’t want to wallow in negative feelings either,How about realistic feelings?

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Hello Kathryn,
    I am sorry to hear about your friend and the passing of your father. I agree with you. I think it is unrealistic to think we should be happy when we hear the news of our cancer returning or when a loved one passes. It is necessary to experience the grief and acknowledge your feelings. We should not ignore how we are feeling. I do believe our society places too much emphasis on being happy all the time. When something in our lives causes feelings of grief, it is appropriate to be sad. I like your idea about realistic feelings. If I am dealing with the loss of a loved one, to spend time grieving is appropriate, but for how long? For example, if we cannot get out of bed 2 years later because we are still overwhelmed with grief, is it time to seek help?
    Louisa

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